How Have Long Life: Life Philosophy from Alaska’s Longest Reindeer Herder

winter sky_n

The sun doesn’t rise now. In its absence, there is darkness and dusk. And there is beauty in the pink hues and  blue silhouettes of midday.

Words to live by from the longest reindeer herder, Chester Asakak Seveck.

For long live and joy life,

I believe these things –

Keep busy and do good work.

Have much good exercise.

Eat good food,

no waste anything

and every day enjoy what it gives

and do not spoil this day with much worry of tomorrow.

Be happy.

I know this way

how I be “Longest Reindeer Herder.”

Start 1908, finish 1954,

altogether 46 years herd reindeer.

From Longest Reindeer Herder: A true life story of an Alaskan Eskimo covering the period from 1890 to 1973, by Chester Asakak Seveck

The Gentleman Angler

Before we moved to Alaska, we’d never seen fog flowing down mountains. I’m sure it happens elsewhere… This was one of those days of sunshine and patchy fog. Fog encircling the horizon. Fog pouring like a river through mountain gaps on Resurrection Bay. 

I like foggy days. Fog means you can start late and not miss the bite. When it’s foggy, sometimes, big things happen late in the day.

By the time Barbra and I got our C-Dory fueled up and heading out into the bay, it was 10:30 A.M. Most of the fleet – both the charters and recreational boats – had long since left the docks. There was a time when I would have been with them – when I had to be on the water early. Dawn. Before dawn. Early early. Trout streams in Pennsylvania, striper rivers in South Carolina, sea bass beaches in Japan….

Most days, the early morning bite is the best.

Fog changes that.

Laid out on the dock are six silver salmon, eight rockfish, a couple of greenling, three small halibut, and a 35-pound lingcod. A couple of the salmon and the halibut didn’t make it into this photo. All of the fish were filleted, vacuum-packed and flash-frozen, ready to travel with us to Point Hope. I asked Barbra to name her favorite on the dinner table. “The variety,” she answered, without missing a beat. We didn’t get up early for these fish, and we didn’t run far.

We could get up earlier. We could run further. We could catch more fish and larger fish.

We know that.

At some point in my life, numbers and size stopped mattering so much. I still like to fish. But most of the time, most days, the fish that interest me the most are the ones that are still biting after I’ve had a good night’s sleep, breakfast, a leisurely mug of coffee (not in a to-go mug, but in my favorite mug at my breakfast table) and have read the news.

“We’re gentleman anglers,” my older friend and mentor Bill Kodrich explained to me. Forty years ago, we were in a cafe, me with a slice of blueberry pie, Bill with a slice of apple pie and a cup of coffee. It was about ten in the morning. We were headed for Spring Creek. I’d never been. I was eager to go. I thought we should have been there four hours ago.

“We don’t need to hurry,” Bill said with a characteristic smile. “There’ll still be trout in the stream when we get there.”

I get it now.


At 18, when I moved out of my parents’ house and moved to San Francisco, I had my first taste of feeling really alive. I remember days when I would walk around the city and I felt this incredible high. I didn’t know it then, but it would be a taste I would always crave…life. When I moved away from the city, I let myself fall into a rut some might call “The American Dream.” Marriage, large house, child, career track and decades down the road a retirement plan hanging like a piece of magical fruit that would make the hours, days, weeks and years slogging through a job I didn’t particularly like all worth it.

From time to time I, experienced flashes of the feeling I’d experienced in San Francisco. But hemmed in by the walls of the rut I was in, these flashes only left me feeling antsy. I needed to do something. I thought it was an itch to travel. So I quelled the feeling by planning little trips. I distracted myself with little projects and little classes. The choice of the diminutive word “little” is with purpose. The activities were small gestures designed mainly to let me avoid looking at the larger sense of dissatisfaction with my life. The BIG need.

Up here in Shishmaref, Sundays are devoted to tasks like laundry and baking–tasks that allow me to engage in reflective thinking. Lately I’ve begun to notice that the antsy feeling is gone. The need for something vibrant in my life is satisfied. When I saw Shishmaref from the sky for the first time, tears came to my eyes. I felt alive. I felt like I was doing something. Over the past few weeks, I have realized that I have always felt I was meant to live an extraordinary life. The life I initially chose for myself as a young adult couldn’t have been a worse fit. I was not meant to live a life of safe routines. This is not to say I’m an extremist and want to live on the edge. But it does mean that I enjoy doing things off the beaten path. Generations ago, living in Shishmaref would have been hard. Living in Shishmaref now is extraordinary–not extreme, but out of the ordinary. I am experiencing a life that isn’t usual. I still walk my laundry to the machines every weekend (today I had to plow through fresh, powdery, knee-high snow), and take out the trash (and then burn it at the dump every couple of months) and shop for groceries (in a sparsely appointed store that would fit many times over in the Safeway where I used to shop)…This life is very un-rut like. I feel like I’m living the life that I was intended to live.

We took a big risk moving up to the Alaska bush. We (foolishly) accepted the first two jobs we were offered without doing much research. Our haste contributed to a year that at times has been rocky. But in taking this risk, we discovered that we love living in the bush. We feel alive here. Moreover, working up here puts an infinite number of summer adventures at our fingertips.

With risk comes the chance to lose, and to lose big. But by taking a risk, there is the opposing chance…the chance to win, and to win big. I feel like I am winning…really big.

That taste I had of life many years ago in San Francisco is now part of my regular diet. It manifests itself in feelings of happiness, freedom, adventure and love. There is a contentment that penetrates to the marrow of my bones. It almost feels as though my heart has struck a new rhythm. A smile comes to my face more often. I feel lucky to finally be living an extraordinary life.

One man’s trash

The dump.

City girl lands in bush Alaska. So, when’s trash day?

I’m not really that clueless. So, how does the trash get to the dump? There is a plywood box with a hinged lid by the end of our house. We take the trash out, carefully tied, to the box until there is about a truckload’s worth of trash. When we first unpacked, the trash accumulated quickly. I am pleased to say it doesn’t pile up as quickly any more. When we have a truckload, we get the key to the school’s truck, fill the back and drive out to the dump, which is about two miles away. We back in as far as we can, dump everything and then (my favorite part!) we light it on fire!

The dump is interesting. Archeologists find so much information about ancient peoples in dumps. The same could be said here. There are thousands of pop cans (up here we say “pop” not “soda”). I have seen different animal skins and all kinds of appliances. We burn everything here. If it doesn’t burn, it will rust or disintegrate eventually (in theory). There are two big incinerators. Relics of someone’s good idea that also has been dumped. The thing that was most out of place was an aged, rusted shopping cart. I can’t imagine how and why that came to Shishmaref.

As far as our contributions to the trash, I have noticed we are not producing much. In Sacramento, we had the smallest trash can available and only filled that halfway every week. We recycled and composted everything. We knew up here that we couldn’t recycle or compost. We were resigned to live with the idea that we would be creating way more trash. Something interesting has happened. Since we bake our own bread and cook everything from scratch, we don’t use packaged items. We reuse ziplock bags and containers to reduce our trash. We rarely drink pop. It seems we are producing about the same amount of trash as we were in Sacramento.